Big Public Hearing Calls For Mental Health Workers' Bill of Rights

June 4, 2008

Raleigh - May 29

Over 200 mental health workers packed a public hearing to address the urgent crisis in North Carolina’s mental health system. The hearing, and the rally preceding it, were important steps in UE Local 150’s ongoing campaigns for collective bargaining rights for public employees; a one-year moratorium on the closing of Dorothea Dix Hospital in Raleigh; and a statewide Mental Health Workers Bill of Rights.

The public hearing – sponsored by Local 150, the North Carolina Public Service Workers Union – featured testimony from health care technicians, nurses, kitchen workers, housekeepers, maintenance staff, and other frontline workers from throughout the statewide system of psychiatric hospitals and special treatment centers. The hearing received widespread coverage from Raleigh-area news media, including newspapers, TV and radio stations.

“We want to make the public very aware of our situation,” said Larsene Taylor, chair of the UE 150’s council of employees of the Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS). “We want to provide quality care for the patients of North Carolina. Patients are always first.”

Taylor said changes adopted in 2001 to the state’s mental health program downsized facilities and created a multitude of problems that persist today. “Injuries have increased, mandatory overtime – there are a lot of issues that make it so difficult to provide the quality care that these patients need,” Taylor continued. “And so our issue is that we need a bill of rights that guarantees us rights that we can do the job that we are paid to do and take care of those patients.”

Along with improved safety measures and adequate staffing levels, Local 150 members are demanding the right to collective bargaining over conditions of work, which is currently banned under North Carolina Union law. With a voice through bargaining, said Taylor, workers could have prevented the state from wasting 400 billion in Medicaid funds.

“We could have had raises. We could have hired more staff – we just didnt have a voice. If there wasn’t a ban on collective bargaining we would have been able to sit down at the table and all those decisions, even from the building structure itself, we could have had some impact on that. Because we know what it takes for the patients themselves to be safe.”

Raymond Howell, a worker at Caswell Center in Kinston, said employees are being asked to do the impossible. “Being understaffed puts the individual in harm’s way and puts the staff member in harm’s way. But we are told to do our jobs or go and get another job.”

Attorney Elizabeth Haddix of the International Worker Justice Campaign, said the state’s grievance procedures are not fair to workers. Haddix said five different employee injuries occurred in one day at Cherry Hospital. ”From the four psychiatric hospitals, we lost a total of 4,000 workdays from worker injuries. Almost 90 percent involved a patient.

As the state plan to reform the mental health system has foundered, long-time workers said patients are increasingly violent and desperate. “These patients have been getting more violent in the last five years because they aren’t getting the treatment they need,” said Bernice Lunsford, a nurse at John Umstead Hospital in Butner with 22 years on the job.

"We care about our patients and we don’t want them to get hurt,” said Burnett Banks, a health care technician at Dorothea Dix Hospital in Raleigh. “We don’t want to get hurt either.”

Workers opposed what they regard as an ill-conceived plan by DHHS to close Dix Hospital and replace it with the new Central Regional Hospital in Butner. Union members say the new facility is poorly designed and will be severely understaffed, thereby worsening existing problems of inadequate care and safety.

On hand to hear the concerns and demands of workers were a panel of eight lawmakers, legal experts, and community leaders: Rep. Larry Bell (D-Clinton), House Majority Whip; Rep. Verla Insko (D-Chapel Hill), co-chair, Joint Legislative Oversight Committee on Mental Health; Kendra Jason, North Carolina State University Student-Worker Alliance; Sen. Vernon Malone (D-Raleigh), member, Joint Legislative Oversight Committee on Mental Health; Rev. John Mendez, pastor, Emmanuel Baptist Church, Winston-Salem; Lewis Pitts, Esq., director, Advocates for Children’s Services; Octavia Rainey, Raleigh neighborhood leader and community activist; and Ashwini Sukthankar, director, International Commission for Labor Rights. Several lawmakers and patient advocates, as well as a representative of DHHS, were in the audience.

“I think we make a mistake if we don’t listen to people who actually work in these situations,” said Rep. Larry Bell (D-Sampson.) Rep. Deborah Ross (D-Wake Co.) was applauded when she said that in her opinion, the move to Central Regions doesn’t meet the minimum standards the legislature set out. “If they open this hospital in its current condition it will be a violation,” Ross said.

At the hearing, workers resolved to continue the momentum by converging on the general assembly as it reconvened the following Monday, June 2, to demand a moratorium on the closing of Dix and the passage of a Mental Health Workers Bill of Rights. Over 25 Dix workers attended the evening session of the General Assembly on Monday. The efforts continued on June 4, during UE-150’s Statewide Political Action Day in Raleigh.

MENTAL HEALTH WORKERS’ BILL OF RIGHTS

Local 150 members in the state mental health facilities have adopted a Mental Health Workers Bill of Rights that summarizes the changes they are fighting for. This Bill of Rights calls for:

  • The right to a safe workplace, including the right to protect oneself from harm with consideration for the safety of the patients, and the right to refuse work that poses a danger to one’s health and safety.
  • The right to adequate staffing levels.
  • The right to adequate and updated equipment and techniques to ensure safer working conditions and quality care for patients.
  • The right to family-supporting wages so that mental healthcare workers can devote their time to the care of their patients and not have to take on second jobs.
  • The right to refuse excessive overtime.
  • The right to a timely briefing about the behaviors of patients that workers are assigned to care for.
  • The right to be treated with respect and dignity regardless of job classification.
  • The right to fair and equal treatment and opportunities regardless of race, gender, age, national origin, immigration, sexual orientation, physical abilities, or religion.
  • The right to a grievance procedure, which includes the right to grieve all matters that can impact safety, evaluations, raises, transfers and promotions with representation of ones choice at all levels.
  • The right to have input in decisions impacting working conditions in the facilities where one works and at the division and legislative levels.
  • The right of workers to evaluate the performance of their supervisor as one of the criteria for their raises and ongoing duties.
  • The right to engage in collective bargaining over terms and conditions of work.

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